When I was young and handsome – yes, gentle reader, I was that man – I did my courting in two Soho institutions: Kettner’s Champagne Bar, where Eddie7 did the nasty with Lil’ Langtry and The York Minster (aka The French) where I would quaff beer - half pints only - and bucketfuls of kir.
Later, as I was morphing into the grey and grumpy bundle of fun I am today I visited the restaurant above the bar, where Fergus Henderson and his wife Margot were busy plotting and creating the embryonic St John. For the record I quite liked it, HS wasn't so taken.
What a pleasant surprise, then, to find myself back in the old place after so many years in an attractive space now known as Polpetto, the brand spanking new baby sister to the incredibly popular Polpo in West Soho. Owner Russell Norman has continued his love affair with New York’s dining scene with another homage to the gaffs of SoHo and Greenwich Village, a 28 cover Venetian-style bacaro in an area that could certainly do with more decent restaurants. And by and large the compact and bijou Polpetto fits the bill.
As at Polpo things start off with small snacks or cicheti pushed out for a quid or three. I always think these sort of things are better where they interrupt a lively discussion (with plenty of gesticulating, naturally) whilst stood at the bar rather than as part a sit-down meal but there you go – that’s how they roll around these parts.
Of my little bites the best was the eponymous Polpetti which had been bathed in a nicely –concocted marinade and gave lie to the fact that small shellfish are better off deep fried, and Chopped Chicken Liver: as smooth and rich as Leslie Phillips on the pull.
The meatball was good too although more Porky than Ducky. An Anchovy and Chickpea crostino demonstrated that preparation of said legume should be left to cooks from East of the Bosphorus.
Pizzeta Bianca - a popular dish from Polpo – was even better than I remembered: crisp, scorched around the edges, slightly chewy and quite addictive. Even a pizza-hater like HS might be converted. Um, maybe not.
Almost £5 for Zucchini fries sounds like a lot of dosh for veg but you’re probably not going to get too many better versions than the one here: light, crisp and grease-free.
Taking a little break gave me a chance to look down upon the mean streets of Soho which, although it’s been sanitised somewhat over the 35 years I’ve been visiting, still has its pockets of seediness and suspicious goings-on: although furtive calls are now made on mobiles whilst huddled in a doorwell rather than from Red Telephone boxes.
Soft-shell Crab can often be just lumps of mystery fish protein in leaden batter. Here the flesh was good but its carapace wasn't, being soft and spongy. As was a salad of fennel with radishes and ricotta. It may have seemed like a good idea at the conception stage but it turned out very damp and the ricotta had disintegrated.
Squid in its ink tasted fine but could have done with being served in something that retained the heat better. It was non-chewy but the cold, dark inky sauce was not particularly nice lukewarm. Consider ordering some decent bread as well to mop up the sauce.
Pigeon Saltimbocca (Pigeon wrapped in Pancetta) came on a white (grits-like) polenta that had soaked up the meat juices. Unfortunately, the pigeon was overcooked so it was a bit of a relentlessly tough eat. Shame.
Osso Bucco was a winner though. Perfectly cooked risotto, with just the tiniest bite to the rice, had a good saffron kick. A large marrow-filled bone sat in the middle. Stuck to the bone was plenty of meat which came away in soft, rich shreds.. All it lacked was some gremolata to cut the richness. I can see this becoming a very popular dish indeed as the nights draw in.
Thinking it best to avoid any M.Creosote-type incidents I passed on pud and stuck to the classic Mediterranean trifecta of strong espresso (good), a little aguardiente and a cigarette. Sans fag, of course.
There was a bit of unevenness to the cooking but nothing disastrous or that wasn’t made up for by the other good stuff I had. In fact, in certain respects the cooking was better than my last visit to Polpo. Allied to the fact that I could actually see what I was eating – it was lunch, things probably get all dark and mysterious in the evening - meant that if I had a bigger stomach I would have happily carried on eating, drinking and generally enjoying myself until chucked out by the young, smiley (and helpful) staff.
Ahhh…chucked out onto the streets of Soho - now that does bring back some memories.